Traditionalist Outlook of Women’s Role in Judaism
Not all of the Jewish rituals are open to women in Judaism. However, there are more and more priestly duties that are accorded to women based on their parental lineage in recognition of their descent which gives them almost an equal footing with men in the observance of Jewish traditions and rituals.
In the last three decades, Judaism has seen a radical shift in the view of the role of women in the practice of their religion. Traditionalists espouse the viewpoint that Judaism provides for the equality of men and women and have gone as far as compiling a responsa (She’elot u-Teshuvot) more like a Frequently Asked Questions that deal with decisions and rulings promulgated by interpreters and decision makers of Jewish law concerning rites that directly address religious needs and the ground-breaking participation of women in the areas of concern. Quite a number of the response that specifically deals with the role of women in Jewish law have been meticulously reviewed and endorsed by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). The particular areas of concern covered by responsa that halakhically justify women’s involvement and participation in synagogue rituals and services are:
the right to read the Torah (ba’al kriah) in public
joining in the minyan
being called to the Torah (aliyah)
serving as (shalich tzibbur) an arbiter or cantor
serving as a (posek) rabbi and halakhic decisor
wearing a tallit and tefillin
The ultimate decision on the actual role of women resides with the congregational rabbi who has the final say on whether the specific rulings are adopted or not. There is however Conservative congregations that are more democratic than others and are open to the participation of women based on the responsa.
Despite the acceptance of the equality of men and women in Judaism, there are other areas where distinctions remain and rules strictly observed:
* A child can only be Jewish if the mother is Jewish; if the father is Jewish father but the mother is not, then the child is not born Jewish.
* Women cannot become legal witnesses despite the pronouncement of the CJLS that they may do so. To make the necessary adjust without contravening the views of some Jewish sects, the prevalent Conservative solution in the area of weddings is to use a wedding document with provisions for the signature of four witnesses: two men and two women.
* The CJLS is very vocal in asserting that daughters of Kohanim (those who are direct descendants of Aaron – priests) and Leviym (descendants of Levi who perform important roles in the Temple such as singing Psalms on services, doing construction and maintenance work for the Temple, serving as guards and performing other services including serving as teachers and judges, and maintaining cities of refuge in Biblical times) regardless of their marital status should be given the proper respect and deference based on their own lineage and not of their husband’s.
* Women are allowed and can perform Pidyon Haben is a Jewish ritual where a firstborn son by natural means is redeemed from a Kohen to release him from his obligation to serve in the Temple. Nowadays, the ceremony is still observed by Orthodox and Conservative Jews but not by the Reform Jews. This ceremony is one of the rarest Jewish ceremonies; the firstborn must be a boy, born naturally and not by caesarian section, with the mother not having had a history of previous miscarriage and requires that neither parent must be a kohen or a Levi. This ceremony is even rarer as it is not performed in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, which have abolished the status of Kohen and special religious ceremonies involving them.
* Although Conservative Judaism prohibits performing Pidyon Ha-Bat on a newborn daughter they state that the ritual of Simchat Bat should be performed instead to indicate the special status of a new born daughter. However, there are two opposing views on the subject within Conservative Judaism as Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz states that it is permissible because “banav” in Numbers 66:23 does not mean necessarily mean sons but actually children; that even if the role of the Kohen is to serve as the medium for God’s blessing to Israel or to pray for Israel to be blessed then the bat kohen possesses the correct and acceptable sanctity of parental lineage to do the same and with the continuous development of the ritual since Temple times, there is no reason to stop.
* Nesiat Kapayim (Priestly Blessing), again there is two opposing opinions on the performance of the Priestly Blessing. Although the CJLS affirms that women of priestly descent may benefit from the rights of Kehunah, the Torah explicitly excludes them from performing the duties and rituals of the Kohanim in the Temple.